Review: The Turn of the Screw

The Turn of the Screw is probably the most widely-analyzed piece of literature to come out of the 1890s (and certainly the most widely-analyzed of Victorian-era horror fictions). Its plot concerns nothing spectacularly unique, as far as ghost stories go; and yet this, James’ most consummate novel, is one of the more ingeniously constructed ghost stories in the English language. The Turn of the Screw’s greatest strength lies in its exploration of the complex web of doubts that linger in the back of its central character’s brain, which mirror in many ways the reservations that occur in the mind of a reader of ghost stories. This curious inversion of the relationship between reader and writer sets the stage for a matryoshka doll of a story that falls into itself, layer upon layer, numerous times throughout its scant hundred pages of text.

The Turn of the Screw is almost a condensation of every motif present in the archetypal English ghost story, though its scope is more American in its convolutions. Henry James, who penned several other ghostly tales alongside his more mainstream fiction, succeeds here so supremely because of his near-obsession with the ambiguity of ambiguities. Wilde called it ‘a most wonderful, lurid, poisonous little tale,’ and that is a fitting assessment: The Turn of the Screw envelops us in a fog of doubt and suspicion, placing us in its narrator’s head and forcing us to see mysterious events through her eyes: there is no third-person narration here to challenge our inevitable disbelief; instead we must rely on the facts as presented by a narrator who is, quite possibly, delusional…but then, is she?

The plot concerns the isolation of a governess at a sprawling country estate where she is left in charge of two children who seem to have fallen under the influence of a menace that may or may not be supernatural. As the story evolves, however, we are forced to question how much of what our narrator is telling us is accurate; The Turn of the Screw predates, and yet also exemplifies, the idea of the ‘unreliable narrator’ which was to have such an influence on the Moderns. Its subject matter lends itself, however, to this device and it remains one of the more successful examples of the technique.

The Turn of the Screw is quite possibly the death rattle of literary Gothicism—the final ‘key work’ in a century-long movement—and so it is quite fitting that it so encapsulates the entire tradition of the Gothic. There would be later luminaries— Lovecraft, Blackwood, Du Maurier, and others—as the 20th Century began to find its darker voice, but The Turn of the Screw remains the curtain call of Gothicism proper: it is the beginning of the psychological horror story and the end of the ‘haunted castle,’ ‘perambulating skeleton,’ ‘woman-in-peril’ school. It still fascinates, simply because so much can be read into it. If we grant that its conclusions remain open-ended, we must also grant, however, that a great deal of its import is right there in black-and-white: The Turn of the Screw elucidates as much as it obscures and paves the way for the kind of cerebral terror that would become the hallmark of the next era of literary gloom: the Weird Tale.

Like all fictions that occupy a place of transition, The Turn of the Screw is a very difficult piece to pin down or define, and given its subject matter, this ambiguity seems entirely relevant to any assessment of its impact. James may not be the foremost writer of Victorian-era Gothic, but his opus is without question one of the finest examples of the movement: it is crisper than Stoker and more chilling than Le Fanu or Stevenson, more allied with Poe and hence more American in its focus: James may have been an Anglophile of the strictest sort, but his darkest work, The Turn of the Screw, entirely exemplifies the principles of the American Gothic and remains, with the stories of Poe, the strongest work in its canon.


Review: The King in Yellow

‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living god.’

The King in Yellow is a book containing ten short stories, four of which are interrelated (and the subject of this review); they are, ‘The Repairer of Reputations,’ ‘The Mask,’ ‘In the Court of the Dragon,’ and ‘The Yellow Sign.’ The remaining five tales range from a set of hallucinatory prose poems ('The Prophet's Paradise') to a predictably supernatural love story ('The Demoiselle d'Ys') to a series of wooden, Francophile romances that have absolutely nothing to do with the first half of the book, save perhaps their loosely thematic consideration of the hazards of knowledge; and while the variable—and often dreadfully stale—latter half of the book contains very little of interest, the four interrelated narratives that comprise its opening half (the King in Yellow cycle, proper) are some of the more astoundingly original pieces of short fiction in all of American literature.

Within this quartet, Robert W. Chambers—a man of remarkable, if briefly employed, vision—sustains a sense of dread only occasionally matched by the great talents he would inspire several decades later. Written in the fin de siècle period and gently touched by the influences of Bierce, Wilde, and Poe, Chambers’ near-revolutionary breed of cosmic terror is so bleak, atmospheric, and saturated with the cloak of doom that to dip into The King in Yellow is almost to taste the madness described therein: for this profound influence on the work of Lovecraft and what would come to be known as Weird Fiction begins with one of the more elemental of Gothic premises: a book that poisons. The King in Yellow, you see, is actually not a collection of stories at all; it is a play within a collection of stories—a play suppressed by governments and denounced entirely by both 'pulpit and press', a play capable of opening the mind to truths of such wicked import that to look upon them once is to look upon the face of madness. This play trickles through the skeleton of each narrative in the King in Yellow cycle: a constant and sweetly sinister miasma that corrupts body, mind, and the very ethers of soul and sanity; and while we are offered occasional glimpses at its pages—a line here or a line there—it is a particularly effective hand that shies away from giving us much more than a taste of what exactly is contained within the cursed pages of The King in Yellow.

The fevered descent that Chambers has titled ‘The Repairer of Reputations’ is the most successful story in the cycle and opens it, establishing its necessary mythology and tone; in many ways it simultaneously foreshadows not only the horror work of Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith, but also the dystopian nightmares of Orwell and Huxley, which is indicative of a general trend: the vision that reverberates throughout the entire King in Yellow cycle is startlingly prophetic, in both content and style, lending a strange timelessness to its pages that approximates, in its impressions, the same insidious hypnosis the play described therein is reputed to induce. The opening story is a brilliant piece of fiction in and of itself, with subtle hints throughout the tale suggesting its jarring and brutally ambiguous ending early on, but it is the echo of its varied motifs, and the way they interweave with the remainder of the collection, that elevates 'The Repairer of Reputations' to a higher plane of literature than many similar fictions can claim.

The remainder of the cycle picks up where ‘The Repairer of Reputations’ leaves off, examining situations that occasionally make subtle reference to each other without ever explicitly crossing-over: ‘The Mask,’ which is the most accessible of the quartet, echoes Wilde with more insistence; ‘In the Court of the Dragon’ is dream-like and terrifyingly sinister, dealing with mysteries that are perhaps unfathomable; the closing story of the cycle, ‘The Yellow Sign,’ is the most popular with anthologists and was the most influential on later authors; it is the grimmest, most thoroughly desolate piece in the volume.

Chambers’ prolific literary output has largely been forgotten (excepting this, his masterpiece): and perhaps this is rightly so, given most of his work’s insipid, if highly-profitable, triviality. The menace he nourishes to such success in The King in Yellow is entirely absent in his other fictions—including, even, several of the stories that comprise the latter pages of the The King in Yellow itself. But the quartet of stories that outline the mythology of The King in Yellow is enough to ensure Chambers' durability: there are so few works of entirely visionary genius in the canon of spectral literature that to identify truly pioneering work is really quite simple—and Chambers’ genius ranks alongside Walpole, Poe, and Maturin for sheer mettle and originality: despite the stodgy ineffectuality of the second half of the book, ultimately, the King in Yellow cycle itself is intelligent, haunting, and exquisitely unnerving in ways few ‘story cycles’ are able to maintain.

A product of the same decade that spawned Dracula, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Turn of the Screw, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Salome, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Sorrows of Satan, Torture Garden, Bruges-La-Morte, and À Rebours, The King in Yellow is one of the few works of the 1890s to remain entirely unclassifiable: it is at once decadent and austere, anarchic and conventional, sagacious and utterly indolent: a kind of saturnine mirror of its own content. And it will haunt you, certainly—but that breath of contagion is sweet; the empyrean heights to which it aspires—the heights that Lovecraft would shatter some time later—are as full of humbling gloom as that later luminary’s work, and just as insistent in the totality of their vision. Unlike Lovecraft, however, Chambers’ opus marvels in the sheer ambiguity of cosmic terror, never shedding an appreciable light upon its subjects or delving too deeply into the complexity of mythology that the Lovecraftian throng would explore several decades later. But this is not a weakness—if anything, the curt laconicism of the King in Yellow quartet is an important part of its beauty and overall success: it is the blueprint of an entire movement—a real-life parallel of the terrors posited within its pages.


Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of the more elegant novels in the Gothic canon; that it is also one of the more sinister is hardly surprising given Oscar Wilde’s curious aptitude for tempering the macabre with the sensuous and the frivolous with the fatalistic.

A considerable scandal upon its publication in the early 1890s, the novel still reads as slightly homoerotic, even if only in the most clandestine and aphotic of ways. Woven through its themes of beauty, decadence, age, and the nature of art is a thread of shimmering doom that becomes more poignant the longer one spends with Dorian Gray and the more one considers its relationship with its author.

It is a peacock’s fan of luminous wit and glimmering color, dripping with venom and smelling of strange perfumes. We are all familiar with the general flavor of things: an innocent and exceptionally beautiful youth has his portrait painted one fateful afternoon; upon viewing the piece, he is paralyzed by the sudden revelation that one day he will be old and hideous while the painting will retain its beauty and life. In a devil’s bargain, he wishes that it would be the other way around. And then, under the influence of a particularly deleterious gentleman, Dorian Gray begins to change: his innocence gives way to corruption and his beauty seems apt to languish under the spell of opium, cruelty, and languor. One day Dorian notices that the painting has begun to transform, while he himself retains all the beauty of an innocent despite the ever-swelling ocean of his sins…

Few works of literature are as effervescent as Dorian Gray and just as few are as utterly pessimistic; that it is capable of fusing remarkably disparate parts into a whole that is absolutely cohesive is a superior example of its author’s gifts. Like Wilde’s Salome, Dorian Gray is as colorful as it is bleak, and even its weaknesses, in context, seem like strengths.

Seldom is an artist’s most famous work also his most erudite and brilliant: this is one of those works. I have approached it perhaps six or seven times in the last five years, and each reading has left me more enraptured than the last—which is high praise for a novel that relies a great deal on suspense and aesthetic splendour. I consider it one of the finest things I have ever read—daring, sultry, venomous, eloquent, and radiant in its own decay.